Wednesday, August 23, 2006


A Chartered Future Course?

In a further ode to 1996, The Washington Post takes a very good, balanced look at a decade of charter schools in the nation's capital:

Ten years after Congress imposed charter schools on a reluctant city, the District has emerged as one of the nation's most important laboratories for school choice and one of the first to confront a central tenet of free-market theory: Will traditional public schools improve with competition? Or will charters take over?

Both sides agree that the District is approaching a critical juncture. With public confidence in the schools at an all-time low, more than 17,000 public school students -- nearly one in four -- have rejected the traditional system in favor of 51 independently run, publicly funded charter schools. That share is one of the largest in the nation and is expected to rise when six more charter schools open their doors this fall.

As charters have proliferated, the number of students attending traditional schools has plummeted from 80,000 a decade ago to 58,000 last school year. Because tax dollars follow the student, charters now claim at least $140 million a year that might otherwise flow to neighborhood schools. That has led traditional schools to cut programs, lay off teachers and, for the first time in nearly a decade, close.

Powerful forces in the national debate are watching closely to see whether D.C. schools can win those students back.

"The hope has always been that the traditional school system would respond by getting better, by doing things that are politically painful, but we've never had a good test of it until now," said Michael Petrilli, a former Bush administration education official who is a vice president of the pro-charter Thomas B. Fordham Foundation.

"We're going to see whether D.C. can compete," Petrilli said. 'If that doesn't happen, you'll see charters continue to open.
Charters aren't seen as an always perfect panacea to public schools. The flaws are noted -- several charters have failed and DC charters actually lag behind other charters nationwide.

In welfare reform, it was important that those affected the most -- welfare recipients -- buy into the new system. Similarly, though the story notes a major lawsuit being brought by parents of children remaining in the traditional public school system, who claim that DC's support of charters is undermining their kids' opportunities, parents are pushing to take advantage of the alternatives provided by charters:

Two Rivers has attracted a diverse student body of about 200 children, about half black and a third white, and has a waiting list of 400. Among the students are Sondra Phillips-Gilbert's two children. She said she pulled her son out of nearby Gibbs Elementary after classmates assaulted him three times. The school was also plagued by mold and mildew, she said.

At Two Rivers, Phillips-Gilbert said, her son is thriving and the school welcomes her involvement.

"I don't have money for a private school. If you get rid of charter schools, you're telling the poor children that they're going to have to be locked up in this incompetent school district that doesn't care about them or their parents," she said. "Don't punish the charter schools because our children have an option. If you don't like to see thousands of students leaving DCPS, then do something."
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